Journal tags: automation

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Design systems roundup

When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.

But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.

Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.

That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.

Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:

This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.

But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:

At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”

Ethan tackles this in his post The design systems we swim in:

A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.

But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:

Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?

This is key. A design system is the product of an organisation’s culture. That’s something that Brad digs into his post, Design Systems, Agile, and Industrialization:

I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:

Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.

Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.

Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.

Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:

We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.

Finally, the ouroboros was complete when Frank wrote down his thoughts in a post called Who cares?. For him, the issue of maintenance and care is crucial:

Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.

Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:

Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.

Also on the topic of automation, in 2018 Cameron wrote about Design systems and technological disruption:

Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.

And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:

In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.

When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.

All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:

Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

It won’t.

It’s just the beginning.

At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.

As always, it depends.

Remember what Frank said:

A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.

The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.

This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).

Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.

Architects, gardeners, and design systems

I compared design systems to dictionaries. My point was that design systems—like language—can be approached in a prescriptivist or descriptivist manner. And I favour descriptivism.

A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

Meanwhile, over on Frank’s website, he’s been documenting the process of its (re)design. He made an interesting comparison in his post Redesign: Gardening vs. Architecture. He talks about two styles of writing:

In interviews, Martin has compared himself to a gardener—forgoing detailed outlines and overly planned plot points to favor ideas and opportunities that spring up in the writing process. You see what grows as you write, then tend to it, nurture it. Each tendrilly digression may turn into the next big branch of your story. This feels right: good things grow, and an important quality of growth is that the significant moments are often unanticipated.

On the other side of writing is who I’ll call “the architect”—one who writes detailed outlines for plots and believes in the necessity of overt structure. It puts stock in planning and foresight. Architectural writing favors divisions and subdivisions, then subdivisions of the subdivisions. It depends on people’s ability to move forward by breaking big things down into smaller things with increasing detail.

It’s not just me, right? It all sounds very design systemsy, doesn’t it?

This is a false dichotomy, of course, but everyone favors one mode of working over the other. It’s a matter of personality, from what I can tell.

Replace “personality” with “company culture” and I think you’ve got an interesting analysis of the two different approaches to design systems. Descriptivist gardening and prescriptivist architecture.

Frank also says something that I think resonates with the evergreen debate about whether design systems stifle creativity:

It can be hard to stay interested if it feels like you’re painting by numbers, even if they are your own numbers.

I think Frank’s comparison—gardeners and architects—also speaks to something bigger than design systems…

I gave a talk last year called Building. You can watch it, listen to it, or read the transcript if you like. The talk is about language (sort of). There’s nothing about prescriptivism or descriptivism in there, but there’s lots about metaphors. I dive into the metaphors we use to describe our work and ourselves: builders, engineers, and architects.

It’s rare to find job titles like software gardener, or information librarian (even though they would be just as valid as other terms we’ve made up like software engineer or information architect). Outside of the context of open source projects, we don’t talk much about maintenance. We’re much more likely to talk about making.

Back in 2015, Debbie Chachra wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly called Why I Am Not a Maker:

When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others.

Anyone who’s spent any time working on design systems can tell you there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for architecture and making—“let’s build a library of components!”

There’s less enthusiasm for gardening, care, communication and maintenance. But that’s where the really important work happens.

In her article, Debbie cites Ethan’s touchstone:

In her book The Real World of Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole (think about Adam Smith’s pin factory), with holistic technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process from start to finish.

(Emphasis mine.)

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of “scientific management” are the same as those of design systems—increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

Humans aren’t always great at efficiency and consistency, but machines are. Automation increases efficiency and consistency, sacrificing messy humanity along the way:

Machine with the strength of a hundred men
Can’t feed and clothe my children.

Historically, we’ve seen automation in terms of physical labour—dock workers, factory workers, truck drivers. As far as I know, none of those workers participated in the creation of their mechanical successors. But when it comes to our work on the web, we’re positively eager to create the systems to make us redundant.

The usual response to this is the one given to other examples of automation: you’ll be free to spend your time in a more meaningful way. With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.

You’ve heard the joke about the factory of the future, right? The factory of the future will have just two living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.

Good joke.

Everybody laugh.

Roll on snare drum.

Curtains.